Taking a Closer Look Through Bette Davis Eyes

“Bette Davis Eyes” was originally penned in 1974 by singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss.  DeShannon first recorded her rendering of the song on her 1975 album New Arrangement.  But Kim Carnes’ version of the song became the version that would be cemented in our minds.  I’m sure Jackie and Donna don’t mind too much, since the infectious new arrangement with gravelly vocal stylings landed the song its immortal place in history.  I do remember its debut April 9, 1981 on KRTH-FM in Los Angeles, an oldies station that briefly played Top 100 during its morning-drive.  The single spent nine weeks in a row on that chart, hitting number one in the United States on this day June 5 — as well as 30 other countries.

Just for fun, compare the two incarnations of “Bette Davis Eyes”.  They’re both very good.  But engineer/producer Val Garay gets the lion’s share of credit for making Kim’s version the superior hit.  He recalls the story:  “Donna Weiss called me one day and said she had a song that she had just finished writing with Bruce Roberts and could she come over and play it for Kim and me at my office.  So she came over and played us the song, and Kim and I kind of looked at each other and we thought, ‘Yeah, not bad.’  But it wasn’t what we were looking for.  So she said, ‘Well, you know, I have this other song I gave to George Tobin and nothing ever came of it.’  And that was ‘Bette Davis Eyes.’  Kim had actually heard it and liked it but nothing had been done with it.  So she played the demo for me, and it was totally different than the record.  It sounds like a Leon Russell track, with this beer-barrel polka piano part.  But I loved the melody and I loved the lyrics.”  The instantly recognizable Prophet-5 synthesizer riff by Bill Cuomo is the hook that pulls you in, and the elements that follow are as good as that first sizzle on the griddle.   Carnes admits that Cuomo’s modified chord arrangement was what caused the song to fall into place.  Garay, Cuomo, and the band with Kim Carnes recorded the track in three takes — and then ended up using the first one for the finished product.   Awesome production, and no auto-tune!

The song won awards at 24th Grammy Awards in 1982.  The two songwriters DeShannon and Weiss won for Song Of the Year; while Garay and Carnes won for Record Of the Year.  Val Garay was nominated for Producer Of the Year, but lost out to Quincy Jones.  Tough competition!  Some incredible talent back then!

That Kim Carnes single has held up well over time, undergoing continuous airplay and being repurposed and remixed to attract new fans to this date.  Even recent finalists on American Idol tried to match the magic heard on the original recording.  They tried.   Billboard ranked it number twelve of all time Top 100 hits over the first 50 years.  I think I’d agree with that.

As for the namesake of the song, Kim Carnes recants Bette Davis’ reaction in the liner notes of her album Gypsy Honeymoon:  “After the release of the record, Miss Davis sent me a note explaining how much she loved the song and that she was especially thrilled because her young grandson now considered her to be very contemporary.  I developed a warm and special friendship with Miss Davis that lasted through the years.  Shortly before her death, I sang the song live for her at a tribute held in her honor.”  So I’ll guess that Bette Davis’ eyes are fondly looking down on Kim Carnes whenever “her” song is played.  A tribute to all that were involved.

Be your best,

  • K.G.

    WOW!!! I never heard that version before. I like the new one better. That other lady has a pretty voice though **

  • Tre27

    Nice info you have here Dean. Bet you got it from all you've read. Here's what you don't know. Bette Davis Eyes has been used around the world in many many countries for selling 7UP, Clairol hair products, Huge chain store products ala Target/walmart but in other countries.
    It's been sampled, stolen,ripped,and used by countless people who thought they could simply take parts of it and write their own song including parts of BDE's.
    Many lawsuits, all won by writers, who are also the publishers.
    Song has been awarded 3 million airplay certificate (that's airplay in the US only…) by BMI.
    It's on classic rotation on every oldies radio station…there have been four #1 hits around the world that ripped Bette Davis Eyes, a couple are “In My Arms' by a ripper named MYLO, and this last year a group called September ripped BdE's titled it Midnite Heartache and it also was #1 in many counties.
    Also Nelly and Akon both rappers…did their own rip of the song…just utube Nelly…Angel eyes
    or AKON Angel Eyez and see what GRRRRReat arists these 2 are when it comes to ripping.
    Im tired of typing.
    enjoyed your site
    ps the list of movies this song was in is too long to list but a few are: North Country, Valentino The Last Emperor, Duets, and 200 Cigarettes.

  • EclecticDean

    Hello Tre27! As a visitor to my site, you're my kinda guy (or girl, you didn't reveal which)!! Most of what I have been writing has been researched for accuracy, but was transcribed from my memories. That's why I didn't throw in everything AND the kitchen sink! I get tired of typing, too — but I never get tired of music!! Anyway, I hope you will drop by from time to time and comment. I ALWAYS welcome trivia and fun facts about music! Hat tip to you!!
    — Dean

  • The design for your website is a bit off in Camino. However I like your website. I may have to install a “normal” browser just to enjoy it. :)

  • James

    Dean just great article with dates that few would know. Very interesting! I will add that the lyrics to bette davis eyes were written by Donna Weis and the original chords and rather flat melody by Deshannon. However Kim C’s should have 1/3 of the song because her version had a huge revamping of decagons very out dated melody. The demo that was played for Kim was Not deshannons, but was Donna Weiss’s. Canes must have loved the way Weiss wrote because they went on to write many songs together. One of them a #1 song by Reba Mcintire and Vince Gill titled The Heart Wont Lie. Lastly Taylor Swift did a cover of Bette Davis Eyes on her cd last year.